Photo: Pablo Rogat/Shutterstock

The Inconvenient Truth About Green Travel

by Jennifer Bernstein Apr 7, 2008
Has green travel as conceptualized today become narrow minded, shallow and embarrassingly self-congratulatory?

Over the last year, we have seen an incredible upsurge in ability to purchase anything and everything “green.”

The travel industry is not immune to the green phenomenon. Travelers are now urged to take photographs instead of souvenirs, to eat local, and of course, to offset the environmental impact of their cross-continental trip with carbon credits.

But are these efforts really making a difference? Or has green travel as conceptualized today become narrow minded, shallow and embarrassingly self-congratulatory?

It’s about time we ask ourselves what “green travel” really entails, and what it might mean to start traveling in a way that is healthy for people and the planet.

Right now, too many ‘green travelers’ are just missing the point.

A Visit To Paradise

While the refuge looks great on paper, the rules that govern it aren’t enforced effectively.

During my first trip to uber-green Costa Rica, I did all the things that a good environmentalist does. I bought local produce, stayed at a sustainable hotel, and visited the wildlife refuges.

As I got to know the area better, the story became more complex. There’s an oft-touted 200-meter wildlife refuge on the Costa Rican coast.

From a biological standpoint, the refuge is a success story. It protects the nesting sites of the Olive Ridley turtle, and is important habitat for monkeys and iguanas.

But while the refuge looks great on paper, the rules that govern it aren’t enforced effectively.

People aren’t technically allowed to inhabit the reserve, yet concrete homes dot the protected area, connected by an informal network of roads that lack a septic system, building codes, running water or electricity.

This shoddy construction damages the biological environment, and the refuge shanty-town is now a notorious area to buy drugs.

The Green Dilemma

As an environmentalist, this is where my moral compass starts to go awry.

Squatting in a wildlife reserve is illegal, and so technically the people who live there must be evicted. However, rapid development that caters to wealthy North Americans has raised the cost of land in the area.

At the same time, the Americans who have moved to the area permanently or semi-permanently have improved the local schools, the quality and availability of health care, and started a program where you can donate your old surfboards to the local kids.

Some of the people in the refuge shanty-town have lived there since before the land was protected, and keep their houses freshly painted. Others deal crack.

But who am I to go to San Jose and lobby the Ministry of the Environment and Energy to evict the crack dealing squatters? Didn’t I go on vacation to relax? Can’t I just purchase some carbon credits and move on to the next beach?

Not So Easy Being Green

Unfortunately, I think that there is a fundamental tension in the very concept of “green travel”.

Despite the plethora of perky headlines that read, “It’s easy being green,” anyone involved in environmental policy or environmental activism knows that living green isn’t easy.

Green means asking complex questions about what is right, and these questions get increasingly challenging in the context of an unfamiliar culture.

Plus, travel is about movement, which means you visit somewhere and then leave. Better travelers are environmentally and socially responsible, and make a genuine effort to learn about and appreciate the area they visit.

Some saintly folks volunteer on their vacations and make long-lasting changes to the area. At the same time, I have heard people talk disparagingly about volunteering overseas, arguing that it is another form of American imperialism.

One way or another, you won’t convince me that I’m improving the lives of sea turtles or Costa Ricans by buying a cute secondhand suitcase for my trip.

Finding A Balance

The problem with green travel as conceptualized today is that it seemingly absolves us from the important responsibility of deep engagement with sticky, morally ambiguous environmental issues.

Our actions all contribute to the same collective environmental whole.

We book a sustainable hotel with just a few extra clicks of the mouse, offset our carbon output when we pay for our rental car, buy a locally made figurine to bring home to Aunt Betty, and voila!

We’re given a get-out-of-jail free card. Our guilt has been offset.

But perhaps travel itself offers the best lesson here. Travel makes us see what we, the human species, are doing on a larger scale. It helps put both the high-impact Western lifestyles of the global elite and the lifestyles of the rural poor in perspective.

For example, if a large Costa Rican family is unable to buy land and is living in a wildlife refuge where they burn their own trash, I shouldn’t glorify my own eco-sainthood and look down my nose at them.

Our actions all contribute to the same collective environmental whole.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with making efforts to be green in our own individual lives, but we just need to be realistic about the actual impact or our behavior.

A Call To Action

So what’s a traveler with a conscience to do? Maybe we should visit fewer places, and sink more deeply into a place when we’re there.

We can read books about our destination that aren’t guidebooks. We can talk to local people. We can buy local products while traveling.

We can think about what it might take to positively impact a certain place in the long term, and perhaps commit to taking some action when we get home.

But be forewarned- when you actually dig into the environmental politics of an area, what green means gets more challenging.

Challenges like those presented by the Costa Rican wildlife refuge require humane and ethical solutions. In the end, travelers must act locally to help solve a global problem.

What do you think of green travel as it’s preached today? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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